Running Backs preview: explosive plays wanted

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(As game day approaches, Inside the Irish will be previewing each of the positions leading up to the big tilt with Nevada to open the season. The running backs preview is the first of many to come this week.)

Many were thrilled when Armando Allen signed with the Irish in the 2007 recruiting class. Here was a guy with the speed that Notre Dame truly lacked — a blazing 4.38 forty time that was the fastest at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl combine — and the scholarship offers to prove it.

Allen suffered a broken fibula that ended his senior season at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School before it began. But he still enrolled early at Notre Dame and immediately gave the coaching staff an explosive presence in the offensive backfield with the ability to break one from any place on the field. As Allen enters his junior season, the Irish are still waiting for that big play to come.

It’s a familiar problem with Irish tailbacks. Allen’s 21 yard scamper was the season long last year among running backs. To put that into perspective, seven players on Nevada had runs from scrimmage longer than Allen’s 21 yard dash. The Irish’s anemic 3.27 yards per rushing attempt was good for 100th in Division I – FBS, and symptomatic of an offensive imbalance that plagued the post-Brady Quinn/Darius Walker Irish.

It’s not as if the Irish running backs lack the resume to have a talented running game. Both Allen and his classmate Robert Hughes were highly touted, and senior James Aldridge was an even more decorated recruit than either of the junior backs. Yet the trio, along with rising sophomore Jonas Gray failed to break lose and run wild in an opponents secondary, even with wide receiving threats Golden Tate and Michael Floyd to keep defenses off balance.

Leaving the offensive line play aside (admittedly, a pretty big aside), one theory for Allen’s lack of explosiveness in the running game is his stunted development. Missing his entire senior season of high school with a broken leg robbed Allen of invaluable on-the-field experience, which would have allowed Allen to utilize his top-end speed in a game environment. Allen admitted to feeling a bit overwhelmed during his trying freshman season, one that had him gather valuable reps getting carries and catching passes out of the backfield, as well as returning kickoffs. His sophomore season saw him improve his yards-per-attempt as both a rusher and as a receiver, as well as up his all-purpose yards per game from 98 to 119. Allen dazzled last season against Purdue, where his 134 rushing yards had many Irish fans hoping it was a coming out party. But Allen struggled to find much of a rhythm after that on the ground. Allen’s kickoff return for a touchdown against Hawaii in the bowl game gave Irish fans hope that Allen had finally turned the corner, as it was first explosive play over 41 yards in his career.

With James Aldridge moved to fullback, Allen is the anointed #1 back ahead of the bruising Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray. It’s finally time for Allen to become the back many expected him to be… or expect him to give way to promising freshmen Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.

If the Irish are going to have a BCS season, giving way to two freshman, regardless of how talented they may be, isn’t the answer. The Irish will need to be successful behind behind the explosive plays of Armando Allen.

And for Allen, it will be better late than never.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

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If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters. 

 

Report: Zaire set to depart with graduate transfer

Malik Zaire
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The wheels are in motion for Malik Zaire‘s exit from Notre Dame. What felt like an inevitability after Zaire lost out to DeShone Kizer after the Texas game is now a reality, as the Ohio native is expected to receive his release tomorrow, according to a report from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated.

Sampson identified four programs as potential landing spots for Zaire: Florida, Pitt, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Power Five programs that all had better seasons (minus the Spartans) than Notre Dame. All have uncertainty atop their quarterback depth chart, though none look like guaranteed jobs.

With Notre Dame out of a bowl, Zaire can get a jump start on looking around, capable of taking visits and finding a home after the semester. That would let him join a program in time for spring drills, where he’d compete and be able to play out his final year of eligibility.

When Zaire leaves he’ll join a line of recent quarterbacks to finish their eligibility elsewhere. Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix, Gunner Kiel and Everett Golson all either played or were recruited by Brian Kelly and finished their careers elsewhere. That could leave a scenario—one many predict—where the top-two on Notre Dame’s depth chart depart, Kizer to the NFL and Zaire elsewhere, turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush who redshirted this season.

Tillery apologizes for actions during USC game

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Sophomore Jerry Tillery issued an apology for two controversial incidents against USC. Notre Dame’s defensive tackle was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a referee caught him stepping on Zach Banner‘s ankle. Cameras also spotted him intentionally hitting Aca’Cedric Ware‘s head after the Trojan running back was injured after a collision with Nicco Fertitta.

Tillery wrote on Twitter:

“I want to take full responsibility for my actions on Saturday. I am truly sorry. I acted in a way that was out of character for me. What I displayed in those two instances were completely unbecoming and not indicative of the kind of player or person I am. My actions in those two instances do not represent what my family or Notre Dame has molded me to be. I want to especially apologize to Aca’Cedric, Zach, their families and anyone else affected by what I did. I assure you I will learn and grow from this moment and become a better man because of it.”

While the backlash on social media has been harsh, USC head coach Clay Helton downplayed it.

“It was a poor decision by a young person. I know it’s not Notre Dame football and I know that’s not Brian Kelly,” Helton said. “He’s been a class act the whole way and I know he’ll address it with his player and handle it in a way that he sees fit. I have always found Brian to be a man of class and integrity.”

Ware himself responded via Twitter, doing his best to put the incident to rest.

Kelly stated after the game that he’d review the incidents, both plays Kelly didn’t see happen live. With the season over, Tillery’s discipline will be handled internally.